There is, of course, the literal death that we all face, the “Big Adios” to borrow a line from Steely Dan. Incidentally, even the River Styx (if you happen to be heading that way) can’t harbor you from the preternaturally long arm of the tax assessor. But before you kiss the checkout girl goodbye and ride off into that blood orange sky there’s all that other stuff that comes… before ya die. Namely, living. And it seems that how you live your life has a lot to do with how you think about death.
Death sucks. There, I’ve said it to allay any impression that I might be coming at this subject from an ivory tower. I don’t want to die. And like most parents, I carry a small and silent disquiet regarding the fragile lives of my children. But in martial art practice, if you consider the reality of what you’re doing in the least, you’re forced to deal with the question of death, or at least the question of getting hurt really badly. I do not enjoy getting hurt or hurting other people. I do my best to walk the fine line between avoiding both of these while at the same time preserving the martial integrity of training. Anyone who enjoys hurting others is a psychopath and it says something about our culture that such people have become popular heroes. In iaido we cut, slash and thrust with a long pointy sharp sword, but I would find it reprehensible to ever ply that skill on an actual human being. Simply put, life is precious.
The very well known text of Hagakure opens directly with the issue of death: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death.” Now, I’m not a samurai. Strictly speaking, there are no samurai today. The samurai were part of a particular caste system which has been defunct for quite some time. There are, however, people that carry on the study of the samurai arts. The budo arts of aikido and iaido are direct products of these arts. And while the purpose of budo today is quite different from what it was for the feudal knights of Japan there resides within our practice the heart and soul of the samurai. Among other things, it is the samurai’s attitude toward death that we might, to some extent through practice, grow to appreciate. It is attaining the empowerment of this samurai sensibility, I believe, that lies at the core of our desire to pursue our practice in these arts.
To the extent that we reject death we reject life. There is the literal death, but life itself contains many deaths. In effect we must die as children in order to become adults. This death of the child metaphor is seen played out in many tribal initiation rituals. We can go through deaths in relationships that might lead to periods of separation, “break ups” or divorce. If we see death only in the simplest linear terms we might think of it as mere finality. But if we understand death as the inception of a new birth then we can often see these inevitable relational changes as opportunities to re-unite with newfound love and deeper maturity and understanding. In marriage we can embrace the many small deaths that inevitably occur in order to grow and deepen as individuals and as a couple. All human relationships are metaphorical and it’s our overly simplistic tendency to literalize that metaphor that leads to much of our misunderstanding and grief.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life. That is the cardinal initiation of every heroic adventure — fearlessness and achievement.”
One example of metaphorical death in aikido is the practice of ukemi. Ukemi is the art of safely receiving a technique in aikido. While our techniques are not designed to kill, the practice of ukemi is a kind of acquiescence to death whereby we might live. The word ukemi is from ukeru meaning to accept and mi meaning person. To practice ukemi requires us to fully accept our situation with our entire being. In other words, only by fully committing to our ukemi can we save ourselves. If we’re holding back in some way then we will pay a price. In effect, there is a point of inevitability in any technique at which we must wholly commit ourselves to it or possibly suffer the consequences. You can say that we spend about half of our training time learning how to die with grace and dignity.
A few years ago I did a 160′ bungee jump off a bridge in Whistler, B.C. The lady before me was terrified. She was shaking uncontrollably. She clung to the hand railing on either side. Then she sat on the edge of bridge, sideling onto one thigh and reaching downward with her other toe as far as she could as though the extra few inches would make much difference off a 50 meter bridge over a glacier fed river. Finally, her sweaty grip slipped from the rail and she plummeted downward at the standard rate predicted by Sir Isaac Newton. When it came my turn I resolved to commit quickly and completely and to jump as high and far as I could. This would be my one chance to experience that moment of flight when a raptor launches from its precipice. Okay, I was merely “falling with style,” but it’s a moment I fully embraced and it was shear exhilaration that I will never forget.
Should life be without suffering and without death? I don’t think so. Joseph Campbell opines that, “Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.”
The art of dying may be the single most important thing we can learn in life because when we run from pain, sorrow and death we are running from life.
~Philip Greenwood, Sensei